Your Child's Grief Monster: How To Help Them Cope

At this time of year, I hear more from parents about anger and tantrums than at any other. More than at back-to-school time, more than flu season or exam time.

"Sally, go out and fill the coal bucket! Your mother's had an awful shock."
I was fourteen years old. An immature fourteen at that.
I can still hear that woman's voice as clear as day.
"Fill the coal bucket."
I can summon the image of her face as if she were still looming over me. 
I can feel the rage that bubbled but didn't explode. Not right there anyway. I remember the feeling that my emotions weren't real somehow, or important. I was young and would "bounce back".
That's what they were murmuring to my mother and to each other in the living room. (I knew this because I was listening at the door as indeed any self-respecting teenager would!).
The coal was my job, the grief was my mother's.
So I brought in the coal and retreated to empty the dishwasher. I knew my mother would go back on the cigarettes now... I also knew I'd take them up.
And there followed a series of deviancies and something of a downward spiral behaviour-wise for me...
I was already nearly six feet tall that day. But in my memory, I feel tiny, and that coal-seeking woman is huge - even though I know who she was - 5'6", tops. Her face is contorted with impatience and judgement.
Now, as an adult, I'm guessing she was simply panicking, trying to think of something for me to do while she managed my mother. And she, herself, was gutted, being a close friend of my father, who had just died suddenly.
She was probably barely holding it together herself.
She was right of course, my mother had had an awful shock. But so had I. Yet I was somehow invisible. Young and resilient, yes, but still...
Years later I told that story to my mother. We had both recovered by then and were able to make more sense of that and other similar incidents. 
The "coal woman" as I came to call her, simply didn't know what to do. She was helpless, out of control - death is the ultimate loss of control. So people do and say the strangest things. And so do their children. As I did - for several years.
Especially around anniversaries, birthdays and Christmas.
At this time of year, I hear more from parents about anger and tantrums than at any other. More than at back-to-school time, more than flu season or exam time. This is the most emotional time of year for most of us - #triggercity!
It's like being mugged, a client once said to me. How right she was. The way grief sneaks up and grabs us in the middle of a Netflix binge, or a walk, or a chat with a friend.
As adults, we can sometimes make sense of this - know what it is, we have a word for it - grief. We are stricken by it.
But kids don't know what it is unless we tell them. They can't identify this awful new feeling they have. It can be confusing for adults to see kids like this. We can make sense of sadness. But what are these new tantrums? What is this new rage?
I work a lot with bereaved kids and teens and so came up with a new word for this - "Sangry".
It's when we "lose it"; we're raging and we maybe shout and hit things. We want to lash out, to cause pain, to damage something, to seek some sort of revenge on life for ruining our happiness so unfairly. Do you know this feeling??
But then we collapse, crying, exhausted, spent, and feeling nothing but empty, alone, heartbroken.
What are we really feeling?
What we're really feeling is sad. But that's often too hard to express. Maybe we don't want to be vulnerable. We get a taste of this as adults when we road rage for example - Like WTAF is with that driver that nearly killed us??!
It's easier to lean on the horn and perhaps communicate in a sort of choice sign language than get out of the car calmly, approach them, tell them how vulnerable and scared we just felt, sad and hurt that they seem not to value us enough to be more careful. So could they please give us a warm comforting hug?
I admit I've done the former, but I've never done the latter -  have you?
Life can be frightening. We are all vulnerable to injury or death. A recent bereavement or illness is a stark reminder of this. Even more so for children and teens.
Their version of leaning on the car horn is slamming doors, taking up smoking, starting fights for no apparent reason, dropping old friends, experimenting with dodgy selfies, drugs, self-harming - it's a long list, and it rarely looks like sadness.
But when a parent calls me puzzled by a child's recent anger outbursts I always check if there's been a bereavement or serious illness in the last year or two. And the answer is very often yes.
Parents know that their child is affected by this loss. It might be a family member, a neighbour, even a pet. But kids are clever and have empathy and they succeed in hiding their pain behind rage.
They may have picked up somewhere, anywhere, that this is the way to deal with pain. They may not want you to see their pain, to worry, to sink back into grief yourself. They may feel more responsible for you - they may even feel responsible for the loss - this is particularly true of younger children.
But they still need your attention and they need an outlet, so they convert sad into angry -
and BAM! -
you have a new lodger in your home and it's called Sangry.
Chief duties and talents: causing chaos confusion and pain, and making your child's core self invisible.
It's the perfect solution in ways - it distracts (everyone), it provides outlets, and it allows shouting and banging and door slamming. Not just for your child, but for everyone. Sangry allows us to scream: 'IT'S NOT FAIR!!'
Because it isn't fair. We know that.
What to do?
Befriend Sangry. Know that your child's anger has a function. I know that sounds a little bonkers, but all of this has meaning if we sit with it for long enough - which can be hard to do if we too are grieving.
I encourage this when working when parents of grieving children: next time there's a rage or tantrum, approach your child, hold them if they let you (try more than once) look them in the eye and ask them what they're really feeling.
Tell them you know that sometimes when we're angry it's because what we're really feeling is scared or sad or hurt underneath it all. Tell them that they can tell you if it's one of these.
Explain to them that this is why they sometimes cry after they've lost their temper. Tell them adults feel the same - it's all normal. It's like a big huge monster that looks scary and sounds scary but really just needs some tissues for its snots and tears and hugs, lots of hugs. Then it shrinks to normal size. It's very friendly actually.
 And its name is Sangry. 
(Actually, full disclosure - when I finished writing this I Googled it to find that I wasn't the first to come up with the word!! Ah well...)
Ps - feel free to pop to my site to read this and related posts
Sally O’Reilly is the Family Psychology Experthere at FamilyFriendlyHQ. She's a Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor in private practice in East Cork with twenty years’ fulltimeexperience. She has a special interest in working with teenagers. For more info contact her through her site sallyoreilly.comor on Twitter @psychosalor Facebookat Sally O'Reilly Psychology & Psychotherapy.


Sally O'Reilly

Person, Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor with special interest in adolescence. Love all chocolate equally, hate all blue cheeses - equally.

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